India’s Real Life Game of Thrones the End of Mughal Independence

A crazed prince seeking revenge, an elderly emperor at the mercy of mercenaries, and the collapse of an empire. No, it’s not Game of Thrones, but a strange interlude from Indian history.

Or rather the tragic story of Ghulam Qadir, the Khan of the Rohillas, and the last independent Mughal Emperor Shah Alam. Their 18th century tragedy preceded the British East India Company’s ultimate conquest of the Mughal Empire.

The tale begins in 1772 when Shah Alam tried to reconquer his empire. At their height around 1700, the Mughal Empire controlled most of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan.

However, decline set in and by the 1760s circumstances reduced the Emperor to begging the British East India Company for help. Shah Alam fled to East India Company territory because an army of Afghan marauders had pillaged his capitol, Delhi, and driven the imperial family out.

Predictably, Shah didn’t enjoy living on British charity. So he enlisted the services of the Persian mercenary, General Mirza Najaf Khan. With Khan’s help, Shah Alam reconquered Delhi and some territory.

The Emperor’s Pet

One of Najaf’s achievements was the defeat of the Rohilla warlord Zabita Khan, whose forces were pillaging Mughal territory. Khan’s forces even captured Kabita’s son Ghulam Qadir, then a young boy.

The Mughals took Ghulam Qadir back to Delhi, where he lived with the imperial family. Author William Dalrymple notes that Shah Alam took a “special interest” in the boy.

Predictably, Indian historians speculate Alam molested Ghulam Qadir. Moreover, there are claims Alam had Ghulam Qadir castrated and turned into a eunuch. Whatever the truth, the Emperor kept Ghulam Qadir as a pampered pet for several years.

Ghulam Qadir’s Revenge

By 1788, Mirza Najaf Khan was long dead and Mughal military power had collapsed. Delhi was defenseless and Shah Alam’s closest ally, the Maratha leader Mahadji Scindia, was far away.

By then, Ghulam Qadir was free and had succeeded his father as Khan of the Rohillas. Predictably, Ghulam Qadir was seeking revenge on Shah Alam.

An added attraction was the enormous treasure supposedly housed in Delhi’s Red Fort. By 17 July 1788, Ghulam Qadir was outside Delhi with a Rohilla Army.

The melodrama began as soon as Qadir’s forces arrived. The Dowager Empress Malika-i-Zamani Begum offered Ghulam £15.6 million ($20.51 million USD) to depose Shah Alam and put her grandson Bedhar Shah on the Emperor’s Peacock throne.

Meanwhile, the few Mughal troops defending Delhi fled, leaving the city at Ghulam Qadir’s mercy. Rohilla forces quickly seized the Red Fort, the Emperor’s residence, took Shah Alam, prisoner, and put Bedhar Shah on the throne.

Ghulam Qadir soon realized the Dowager Empress didn’t have the money she had promised. Consequently, Rohilla troops began pillaging the city. Soldiers stole jewelry from women and even scraped gold off the roof of a mosque.

Rohillas beat, tortured, and abused members of the court to extract more money. They even drowned the Head Eunuch Mansur Ali in a latrine. When Ali claimed he had saved Ghulam Qadir’s life when the Rohilla leader was a boy. Ghulam said, “do you not know the old proverb to kill a serpent and spare its young is not wise.”

The Rohillas reserved the worst cruelty for Shah Alam. Ghulam Qadir ordered his soldiers to cut the Emperor’s eyes out. Disgustingly, Ghulam Qadir watched the grisly spectacle.

After the Emperor’s blinding, they forced 20 Mughal princes to sing and dance for Ghulam Qadir and his officers. After the dance, they starved some princes to death and other princes jumped off a tower to escape torture.

Similarly, Rohilla soldiers flogged and raped many of the women of the court.

Ghulam Qadir Pays

Ghulam Qadir’s behavior was so outrageous that it spurred Mahadji Scindia to take action.

Scindia’s French-trained Maratha forces were among the best soldiers in India. Scindia sent some of those troops to rescue the Emperor. One commander of the relief force was a French nobleman, Benoit de Boigne.

The Maratha relief force did not reach Delhi until September 1788. By then Ghulam Qadir’s forces, fearing the Maratha infantry, had fled with the money.

After rescuing Shah Alam and putting him back on the throne. A Maratha force led by de Boigne went after Ghulam Qadir. It took a few weeks, but the Marathas finally ran Ghulam Qadir down.

A local leader betrayed the Khan of the Rohillas. After the betrayal, Maratha soldiers hauled Ghulam Qadir to Scindia’s headquarters in a cart. Scindia ordered his men to cut Ghulam Qadir’s ears off and hang them around the Khan’s neck. The next day, soldiers cut off his nose, lip, and tongue. On the third day, they cut out Ghulam Qadir’s eyes.

One account claims the Marathas fed Ghulam Qadir’s body to a dog – the ultimate insult for a Moslem. After the Khan’s demise, Scindia had Ghulam Khan’s ears and eyeballs placed in a coffin and shipped to Shah Alam as a gift.

Ironically, Shah Alam lived and “reigned” until 1806. The Mughal Emperor was first a puppet of the Marathas and then the East India Company. When the British General Lord Lake conquered Delhi in 1803. Shah Alam went over to the East India Company and became its puppet.

The Mughal Dynasty lasted until 1857, when mutinous Sepoys, or company mercenaries, tried to make the last Mughal Emperor Zafar, or Bahadur Shah, their puppet. After the Sepoys’ defeat, the British exiled Zafar and put India under the Crown.

On 1 May 1876, Queen Victoria became Empress of India. The title Emperor of India lasted until 22 June 1948 when the last Emperor of India, King George VI (Queen Elizabeth II’s father), relinquished the title as India became independent. India is now a Republic.

Ghulam Qadir and Shah Alam’s behavior shows why Indians have no love of monarchy or royal families. The barbaric behavior of the Mughals and Rohillas enabled the East India Company’s conquest.

One reason for the conquest was that many Indians preferred the Company’s exploitative rule, which at least provided some order, to the brutality and greed of their royal families. The lesson is Game of Thrones is fun to watch but not to live.

For a detailed account of the adventures of Shah Alam and Ghulam Qadir, see William Dalrymple’s The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an EmpireChapter Seven.